Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts about the color purple, then and now

When I was a pre-teen, I had a stepmother who enforced a strict rule when it came to clothing: She wouldn't allow me to wear anything purple. This sartorial restriction never made sense to me. After all, I pointed out, purple is the traditional color of royalty. My arguments fell on deaf ears: Purple was out.  (I also wasn't allowed to pierce my ears--body piercing was only appropriate for Gypsies and "the French," according to the wisdom handed down to me.)  

I never understood the ban on purple. Was the color considered to be vulgar, or simply tacky? My adolescent speculations ran wild. I had visions of plum-skirted Gypsies and French women jitterbugging through the streets of Paris--in my imagination they'd be whirling in all their purple glory, pierced body parts jangling.

Finally came the day--I think it was the eighth grade--when I finally got to wear something purple. I've never felt more daring than the day I ventured down the hallway of junior high in my pale lavender miniskirt and matching vest.

I guess it wasn't only my stepmother who disdained the color purple. For example, here's a line from a poem written in the early 60's by  Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/And a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
I was reminded of the ancient purple prohibition when I ran across an article in the New York Times, Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers. The article describes how statistical analysis is being used to gain insight into the minds of Victorians. Researchers are doing electronic searches for key words and phrases to study how the Victorians thought.

As I read the article, my first reaction was to question whether people of different eras think all that differently from each other. Then I thought of my old purple ban. Nowadays, people don't give a fig about wearing the color, although it's apt to be called something trendier like "eggplant" or "pomegranate."

Granted, thoughts about wearing a certain color is a minor thing. Can you think of any more significant ways that we have changed our ways of thinking over time? Are we really all that different in our thoughts than people of different eras? If so, how have you seen that reflected in literature or your own writing?

And by the way: What is the real deal about purple? Anyone know?


  1. Fun post!

    My mother was a leader in the Red Hat Society in her home town of Kansas City, Kansas. She got involved to find social friends after my father died. She explained that wearing purple, as reflected in the poem, symbolized losing one's sanity, or no longer needing to be a role model. In other words, now that I'm old, I can do anything I want.

    For her it meant a new life, rising above her grief and loneliness. She became such a force in the movement here, that upon her death in March of 2005, the city named an annual Red Hat Society Day in her honor. There was a great celebration, where all the queens sat at a table on stage with an empty chair and her red hat marking her place.

    To this day, if I see a group of Red Hat Ladies in a restaurant, I have to signal the server to give me their checks so I can secretly pay their tabs. (Then I have to leave before I cry.)

    In Elizabethian times, the wearing of purple was prohibited by law except for certain people, usually royalty, or certain times, such as mourning.

    There were prohibitions in Jewish law against wearing certain fabrics, which, depending on inerpretation, included purple dyed material.

    Some traditions held that purple sybolized mystery and fantasies, which to some of our grandmothers, might have meant venturing into "taboo" thinking.

    As you said, time changes the thinking about some things. Today, wearing purple, among other things, symbolizes sympathy for children victimized by homophobic bullying.


  2. Interesting, Dave. Purple brings to mind the Red Hat ladies and their purple and red outfits for me too but not for your poignant reasons. It's wonderful that your mother found a purpose in the group.

  3. Purple is the color of death. I was raised in a Greek household. Whenever someone died. Everyone wore black and a wreath with a huge purple bow was placed on the door. Mourning lasted for a year, which meant no holiday celebrations. None. Just the big purple wreath. Consequently, I never wore purple for fashion until I went to college. Just saying.

  4. That's so touching about your Mom, Dave. I've seen the Red Hat Ladies walking around our seaside village--now I want to join them!

    There might be something to that idea of purple being associated with fantasy--certainly as a kid I was conjuring up a bit of fantasy about my dancing, free-spirited ladies of Paris!

  5. Really, Anon--death? Wow. Purple really gets around...

    Overall, I prefer jitterbugging Parisians.

  6. Other than the royalty thing I had no idea about the other "signals" the color purple sends.

    So when you see me wearing purple, which is frequently, know this: my ulterior motive is...I just like purple. 8-)

  7. Perhaps the biggest changes I see impacting writing and reflecting differing views in the current era is gender and sexual roles/mores.

    The feminist movement, birth control, widespread acceptance of casual sex and diverse orientation impacts most any tale written today.

    Representation of women and men is much less stereotypical. There is a huge range of credible character representations/lifestyles/attitude that can polarize and offend or engage dependent on the reader. (as an example consider the range presented in the 'dragon tattoo' trilogy...not our parent's world).

  8. tjc, I guess this is more culture than era, but my mother just finished the third book in the Stieg Larsson series, and she was just saying to me that the Swedish attitudes toward sex are incomprehensible to her. But she added that they're not graphic scenes, and she adores the books.

  9. I wasn't allowed to get my ears pierced, either. Only "hoodlums" had pierced ears, according to my mother.
    Ideas about body decorations of all sorts have changed with the generations. Although I just ran across a 100+ year-old newspaper article addressing a sudden proliferation of tattooing. Maybe everything just comes and goes and comes again.

  10. Niki, I have to admit that tattooing didn't even enter my thoughts--I guess I would have thought only sailors got them. And maybe motorcycle gangs, if I'd even heard of them. I had a fairly restricted view of the world back then.

  11. In many ancient cultures in Asia and the Middle east the wearing of certain colors was verboten except by royalty. Especially being the expensive color purple. It was never a good idea to show up on the street wearing brighter, richer colors than the King or his family. It would quickly become a wardrobe to die for.

    I don't imagine that's what your step mom was thinking, but who knows.

  12. Purple is always an excellent choice. I have light blonde hair and blue eyes - the typical Nordic look - and there isn't a shade of purple that doesn't work for me. But earth tones.... Ugh! They make me look like I've been dropped in mud. Colors do have different cultural connotations, though, and that probably affects us subconsciously somehow. Some cultures think of white as the color of death/funerals, our culture views it as the color of "purity", Russian and Asian cultures have freakishly positive views of red (the root of the Russian word for beauty is the same as for red) whereas here red is just sort of average (but MY second best color after purple), etc. It would be interesting to know what your connotation your mother thought purple denoted. I do think pierced ears on babies and preschool aged children looks inappropriately slatternly, even though other cultures think it's "pretty". Don't even get me started on tatoos again...

    Yes, attitudes and cultures change, and they affect people down to their core without them even necessarily realizing it.

  13. I think it's remarkable what we manage to acclimate to. If you had told me a decade ago that I'd have a choice between allowing the airport security people to see me naked, or submit to a groping session with them, I would have thought you were nuts. And yet, here we are. Times change, not always for the better. Reading Cold War era thrillers now, they tend to seem somewhat ironically quaint.

  14. There's something wrong with purple? I never knew it...When I was a in school it was always my favorite color. It was even my high school colors- purple, gold, white. I guess I would have been in trouble somewhere else.

  15. Michelle, for me, the level of today's fear doesn't compare to the Cold War, when we conjured visions of MAD (mutual assured destruction). Lots of people will disagree, but I don't worry about nuclear terrorism nearly as much as I worried about a massive exchange of nuclear missiles back in the day. It feels like the probability of an isolated nuclear incident or dirty bomb has gone up, but the probability of a 'Wargames'-style rain of nukes seems to have lessened. Not that it's any better, to be sure!

  16. So interesting. I love purple, but both my parents (now in their late 70s) are vehemently prejudiced against any shade of it, in a way that seems more cultural than personal. Something about the color signals "no class, no taste, no restraint, no sense of decorum" to them, although they are not particularly uptight in general. I think it stems from 19th cent. New England prejudice against anything Gypsy-ish or "European". Then again, Mom's fave colors are the most boring shades of blue and brown, so maybe any bright color intimidates her.

  17. Venus, sounds like we both come from similar stock, lol. Our parents must feel about all things purple the way I did when I first saw a purple car--I went, "Eww...how tacky"!

  18. Kathryn, your comment about the Cold War vs. today made me realize something strange. I was born at the very end of the '70s, which means that I was barely 10 when the Berlin Wall fell, and in my early 20s when 9/11 happened. During my teens, the years when my view of the greater world and world politics was shaped, there was nothing really scary on the horizon. It seems I hit a narrow window of peace, unlike most of the people I know. I wonder how big a difference that creates in our thinking.

  19. Interesting. I already had a character in mind for my WIP who wore a lot of purple. And that was about all I knew about her until reading this post. Now I know her a lot better.

    Thanks for the post and the comments.